WESTERN IRAQ — The Strike Force Manchus are preparing to take control of roughly 3,500 square miles of desert — one of the largest areas of operations in Iraq. The soldiers from 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, known as the Manchus because of their service in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1901, began patrols in Iraq last week. Strike Force, the 2nd ID’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which includes the Manchus, has asked Stars and Stripes not to reveal the exact location of its units for security reasons. However, the Manchus’ commander, Lt. Col. Joseph Southcott, said 1-9’s area of operations is a vast expanse of desert that does not include any large cities. “We have small villages and towns. but no major urban areas. The biggest feature we have is a main supply route that bisects our area of operations,” he said.
The bespectacled commander experienced this up close on his first patrol in Iraq when an IED blasted the last Humvee in his convoy into a canal, injuring two Marines in a joint force, he said. “For everybody in the patrol it was very instinctive. As soon as it happened there was no doubt what it was. You pull over, dismount, pull security, treat the wounded and search the area,” he said. Last Saturday night, several of Southcott’s soldiers got their own chance to check out the area, patrolling through a small village alongside another unit. The soldiers rolled out in a convoy of Humvees, using night vision goggles to drive 50 mph along a dark six-lane freeway. The vehicles stopped at an observation post overlooking the main supply route and the soldiers transferred to Bradley fighting vehicles. When the Bradleys reached the drop-off point, ramps dropped and soldiers stepped into the landscape lit by a pale half-moon. One of the veterans had some advice for the Manchus. “This isn’t just a walk in the dark,” he said. “Make sure you are paying attention.” Another veteran advised the newcomers that the locals respect only strength. “We have killed so many insurgents they call this the blood patch,” he said, pointing to his unit’s insignia.
Iraq is a pleasant change of scenery after a year and a half in South Korea, Dodson said. “The terrain here is really flat and it is hot and dry. There are mountains and it is hot and humid in Korea,” he said. The soldiers cut across some fields and stopped in a palm grove next to a canal full of weeds. Among the palms stood a tree trunk, sheared of its branches, poking up like a ship’s mast in the darkness. A few months ago the tree was blown up by four 155 mm artillery rounds that shattered the front of a Humvee and threw the machine into the canal, injuring two soldiers, the veterans said. The soldiers finished the patrol by walking around the edge of a small lake to rendezvous with the Bradleys. “We have been preparing for a long time. My soldiers are excited about getting into the area of operations and beginning to conduct our military operations in support of a stable and secure Iraq,” he said.
WESTERN IRAQ — Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment have found themselves in the somewhat macabre position of living in a former morgue while they wait to move into their barracks in Iraq.
Nearly 100 soldiers from 1-9’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company are living in a building that, until recently, was used as a morgue. For the most part, the soldiers are not concerned about sleeping in a morgue, said one HHC soldier, Pfc. Chris Meleo, 20, of Lakeville, Mass. “I felt something touch me in the night, but it was just the guy next to me,” Meleo joked. Another HHC soldier, Pfc. Joshua Lewis, 24, from Detroit, also doesn’t mind sleeping in the morgue, saying there are more tangible things to worry about. “You hear mortars hit all the time, and you can feel the morgue shake,” he said. What the Manchus really would like are better shower facilities, Lewis said. “The shower facilities are not what they could be. There is very little water. Hardly enough to wash yourself,” he said.
Next door to the morgue, soldiers from 1-9’s Company C were bolting armor onto their Bradley fighting vehicles. Two Company C soldiers, Sgt. John Eimers, 24, of Chicago and Spc. Andrew Palmieri, 24, of San Diego, spent hours working in the hot sun to put the armor on their Bradley, which they call the “Myrth Mobile.” The armor contains shape charges designed to blast back at weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades if they strike the vehicle, Eimers said. The whole process of fitting the armor takes 12 hours over two days, he said. “We loosen bolts and take components off and bolt the armor on. We have to use gloves. You could burn yourself because it heats up in the sun. The tools are enough to burn you, let alone the armor,” he said.
And then there’s a touch of amusement present around the former morgue. While they prepare to battle insurgents, the young soldiers are competing with each other to see who can grow the best mustache. Eimers, who is experimenting for the first time with facial hair, started growing his mustache the day he left South Korea. Palmieri, who had a goatee before joining the Army, followed suit after arriving in Kuwait, where Strike Force stopped on the way to Iraq. The only member of their Bradley crew who is not growing a mustache is their commander, they said. “Facial hair is frowned upon for officers,” Eimers explained.